Here I am

100 scientific papers reveal the key to creating a lasting personal brand

Here's the science of personal branding.

There’s probably no better way to think about “personal branding” than the Dolly Parton challenge. You might also know it as the Facebook/LinkedIn/Instagram/Tinder meme.

If you haven’t seen this ode to our online personas, here’s a quick rundown. In January 2020, Dolly Parton posted a collage of four photos, each tailored to LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or Tinder. The LinkedIn photo? The stuffy business suit. The Tinder photo? Her ode to a Playboy bunny. If you’re into this, check out Ellen Degeneres, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover (he’s looking a little dusty lately), Eminem, or the UN Environment Program’s posts using that same concept.

Together those photos tell a story: Personal branding is real and more likely than not, you’re probably already doing it in some form on social media (odds are your Tinder photo isn’t the same as your LinkedIn one). There are ways to get the most out of this.

To find out how to get the most out of personal branding for work, I spoke with Sergey Gorbatov, an associate professor at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. He told me that it's invaluable when done correctly.

“Our research convincingly links personal branding to positive career outcomes. By surveying thousands of people around the world and across different professions, we found that those who engage in personal branding feel more employable and more satisfied with their careers,” he tells me.

This week we’re digging into what we’ve learned about personal branding after years of study and how we can use that insight to get better at it while staying as authentic as possible.

A version of this article first appeared as the Strategy newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it weekly.

What a professional brand should achieve

Over the past decade, personal and scientific interest in personal branding has grown. Between 2008 and 2018, the rate has continued to climb.

In 2018, Gorbatov and his colleagues published a review paper that looked to distill lessons learned from 100 papers within that body of research. Overall, your goal should be to create personal brand equity. Not only will your brand be recognizable, but it will be associated with positive things.

Their 2019 paper suggests that to achieve this, your brand needs to hit three benchmarks:

The first thing your personal brand must have is appeal.

He says that, basically, it comes down to whether people like working with you. Do you get along with your colleagues? Do you have a positive reputation in your field?

If you are generally pleasant to work with, that’s a step in the right direction. From there, Gorbatov says your brand must be different, or at least recognizable.

Decades ago, he says, that brand differentiation may have come from a “flashy business card” or some other distinguisher. Now, though, he adds it can come from your work itself.

“We cannot separate the process of personal branding from the super networked world that we live in.”

“Think about it this way," Gorbatov says. "When somebody — it could be a colleague at your company or a client — finds a piece of your work, a presentation slide, a report, a prototype, or a piece of code with no identifiable information, do they know that it's yours? Do you have a distinctive 'signature' — a pattern, an image, a design, or a color combination that is always associated with you?"

The final step, he says, is about building awareness and outreach. If the key purpose of branding has been to create a certain image of yourself, social media is the best way to get that message out.

“Social media will get you the scale and the reach so it cannot be ignored,” he says. “Today, we cannot separate the process of personal branding from the super networked world that we live in.”

If those are the three goals you have to achieve, the next step is to make sure you’re on track to accomplish them. You can find some of the factors Gorbatov and his team uses to evaluate whether you’re actually keeping up a personal brand in this figure in his 2019 paper. Essentially, if you can relate to its statements, you’re on the right track. If you’re not, it’s extremely good at showing where you may have weak spots.

Give your personal brand appeal. Westend61/Getty Images

One way to practice

Now that you know what a brand should do, the trick is figuring out how to get there. For that, a team of scientists at the University of Portsmouth posed a solution, tested it on their own students, and published their results in the journal Studies in Higher Education. They call it a “brand me presentation.”

Over the course of one year, 105 students developed a two-minute “elevator pitch” presentation in which they had to communicate their personal brand to a prospective employer.

This two-minute pitch would give students a way to practice articulating their strengths, aspirations, and values in a confident way. Students took videos of themselves, which were critiqued by their classmates and professors and reviewed by the students themselves. The students did these presentations three times.

By the end of the year, the team found that student attitudes toward their employment prospects improved as a result of the presentations. When they were asked whether they thought they were employable on a scale of one to five, the average answer was 4.13.

One student, interviewed as part of the study, described the process like this:

“In my second presentation I look increasingly calm, maintaining eye contact ... in the final presentation, I could talk confidently about my work experience and skills ... doing the ‘brand me’ videos this year has given me the confidence to sell myself by talking about my skills and how they are relevant to an employer.”

The "brand me" presentations are presented as a learning tool for business schools in the paper. But it’s a simple context that can allow you to practice not only creating, but communicating your personal brand.

It takes just two minutes and a willingness to accept a bit of feedback.

Don’t fall into this trap

The biggest trap that people fall into, says Gorbatov is trying to be all things to all people.

“A few things executed well are better than lots that are poorly done. Sometimes, I see people's brands being disjointed and sending conflicting messages,” he says.

His paper notes that it’s still an open question as to whether people can juggle numerous brands — for instance, a personal one and a professional one. But the best thing to do is to pick one brand, one target audience, and stick to it.

A version of this article first appeared as the Strategy newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it weekly.

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